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Rear Vision -

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Journalist [archival]: The number of North Koreans defecting to South Korea has halved since Kim Jong-un became supreme leader. But there are few illusions that the drop in defections has come because North Koreans are any happier with their lot.

Andrei Lankov [archival]: He is smart and he is using other measures as well. Not only military presence. Not only police. Propaganda.

Annabelle Quince: Kim Jong-un is the third of the Kim dynasty to assume the leadership of North Korea. First was his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, in 1948, and then his father Kim Jong-il in 1994.

Hello, this is Rear Vision on RN and via your ABC Radio app. I'm Annabelle Quince.

Family dynasties are not unusual, but what's unique about North Korea is the way power has been passed from father to son twice and they are still in power. But let's start with the first Kim.

Jimmy Carter [archival]: I've spent several hours on two different days with President Kim Il-sung. I've found him to be vigorous, intelligent, surprisingly well informed about the somewhat complicated issues, very frank in his discussions with me, and he seemed to be totally in charge of making the decisions for his country.

Annabelle Quince: Former US president Jimmy Carter talking about Kim Il-sung in 1994. Kim Il-sung came to power in 1948 and is still the most respected of the Kim dynasty because of the role he claimed he played in liberating Korea from the Japanese during World War II. But there is some debate now amongst western historians about just how much fighting Kim Il-sung actually did. What we do know is that the young Kim's parents were anti-Japanese and that he did play some role in resisting Japanese colonialism. Bradley Martin is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.

Bradley Martin: They were patriotic people, they were anti-Japanese people, which you might think would go without saying, but actually a huge percentage of the Korean population basically went over to the Japanese side and were happy to be working for the colonial power. So the Kims in that regard, I guess you would say they were true patriots.

The family moved to Manchuria, and Kim was going to school in Chinese language schools, which stood him in good stead later on because when he was fighting the Japanese as a guerrilla he was part of a communist Chinese guerrilla army. But thanks to his having learnt Chinese and being able to blend in up there in the two cultures in Manchuria, he was able to get off to a good start as a young guerrilla leader.

He actually did fight against the Japanese colonialists, basically inside Manchuria, until it became impossible, until actually they singled him out as a particularly troublesome enemy and went after him and wore him down, wore down his troops so there were very few of them left. So eventually he just had a few left, and they went across the border into the Soviet Union to sit out the war basically. This is where a lot of the mythology really comes in because the North Koreans today don't want to acknowledge that he was sitting out the war and in fact was wearing a Russian uniform and was being trained by the Russians. The mythology that you see in the North Korean version has it it was he who liberated Korea from Japanese rule, which of course is not even remotely true.

Annabelle Quince: Brian Myer, an analyst in North Korean culture, argues that the story is even more complex, and that the Kim Il-sung the Russians installed in power at the end of World War II was in fact an imposter and that the real Kim Il-sung, who was a guerrilla hero, died in 1937.

Brian Myer: It now turns out that a lot of the Cold War right-wing propaganda about North Korea was true all along, in claiming that Kim Il-sung was not the big guerrilla hero, the big anti-Japanese hero he made himself out to be from 1945 onward, but in fact he assumed the persona of a distinguished guerrilla leader with the same name who was also called Kim Il-sung.

Now, how do we know this? We know this because we have the Japanese records of the interrogation of hundreds of Korean independence fighters who were captured in the late 1930s, and these people were interrogated and no doubt tortured in isolation and yet they agreed that the Kim Il-sung who had led them on anti-Japanese raids was born in about 1901 and was about 160 centimetres tall. In other words, he was about 10 years older and a good two or three inches shorter than the Kim Il-sung that we all know. And that real hero died in November 1937.

Annabelle Quince: So that's very interesting because he wasn't born with the name Kim Il-sung, was he, that was the name he adopted.

Brian Myer: Right, he was born Kim Song-ju and he adopted the name Kim Il-sung, perhaps in order to make it easier for him to assume the identity of this much more famous guerrilla figure, who really was legendary in Korea, especially in the northern provinces of Korea. So the Kim Il-sung that the Soviet Red Army presented to the North Koreans in 1945 was a different guy. He was born in 1912 near Pyongyang. He had left the country when his father got into some kind of problems with the Japanese colonial authorities. He had had some kind of schooling in Manchuria before joining the Chinese Communist Army and fighting against the Japanese in that capacity.

Then in 1940 as the Japanese pressure on these anti-Japanese guerrillas increased, Kim Il-sung fled to the USSR and joined the Red Army in the Soviet far east, which means that this so-called hero of the resistance spent five years in a neutral country raising Russian named children while the Korean people went through the worst period of colonial rule. If he was ever a true guerrilla, he was not shaped by his guerrilla experience to the extent that, say, Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh were.

Annabelle Quince: And at the end of the war in 1945, did he return to North Korea with the Soviet army?

Brian Myer: No, he didn't actually come down in that first advance, he only came down in mid-September 1945, so well after North Koreans had begun to organise themselves politically. And then in October 1945 the Soviet Union pretty much presented him to the North Korean people as the Kim Il-sung. And even in 1945 you can see from the photographs of him that were taken then, he still cut such a boyish and callow figure, he looked much younger than his age, that when he first laid public claim to being this great guerrilla hero on stage, his North Korean audience jeered at him, which is to say that although he was a good looking young guy, he was not a charismatic figure, and he was not a particularly effective public speaker, he had a truly unpleasant speaking voice, and he needed a few years really to grow into the role and begin looking like a leader.

Bradley Martin: The first time he spoke, here was the conquering great general Kim Il-sung, people were surprised because he was so young, he was very young, he was only 33 years old. Anyway, they said who was this guy with the Chinese waiter's haircut? We heard about the great general Kim Il-sung, but this guy looks much too young and callow to be he. Anyway, there was a huge propaganda campaign and the Soviets knew how to do this, and Kim was a swift learner. So it wasn't long before the people of the country were being taught that he was all that he claimed to be.

Annabelle Quince: So why was he so attractive to the Soviets? Why did they want to put him in place in North Korea?

Brian Myer: You have to remember that the communist party in North Korea was virtually non-existent in 1945. There were virtually no communists. And the Soviet authorities were well aware that if they were going to unify the North Korean people around a leader and hopefully bring the South Koreans around to supporting him as well, they could not simply install some Soviet Korean guy who had gone to university in Moscow, they needed somebody who could appeal to the people on nationalist grounds. So they took the closest thing to an anti-Japanese hero they could find.

We also have to remember he was a much more cosmopolitan figure than people generally think. He had been well assimilated in the Chinese Communist Army, he spoke Chinese, he had been well assimilated in the Soviet Red Army before coming back to North Korea, and he also bore no special grudge against Koreans who had collaborated with the Japanese. On the contrary, he put some of the worst former collaborators into key positions in the cultural and propaganda apparatus, and he gave top positions to plenty of Koreans with Soviet passports.

From the Soviet perspective he looked like a perfect unifying figure whom they could work with well. And of course it turned out in later years that he wasn't quite as malleable as the Soviets had hoped.

Cheong Huh [North Korean Acting President and Foreign Minister 1960]: On Sunday, June 25, 1950, the communists launched an attack across the 38th parallel in a traitorous attempt to destroy the Republic of Korea.

Bradley Martin: He always wanted to unify Korea, always from the very beginning. He wanted to build up North Korea of course and he did that with a lot of aid from the Soviet Union, some Chinese aid, some other aid. But he looked at North Korea which had an abundance of natural resources, lots of metals, lots of coal, and he looked at the south which had good rice growing land, and he said, you know, these two halves of Korea belong together. You need both of them to form a proper economy, and this was a big theme of his as he used to go and try to persuade Stalin to let him invade. It's been the same theme ever since.

Brian Myer: When you are a nationalist country, and I can't stress this enough, that North Korea to my mind really has never been a communist country, it started out when the Republic was established in 1948 on the cusp between far left and far right. You had people preaching race politics, but at the same time arguing that the Soviet Union was the best partner for the race in driving the Yankees of the peninsula. And when you are a nationalist leader ruling over one half of a divided peninsula, you have no choice but to try to unify the country. That's bound to be your first mission. Besides which there were sound economic reasons for doing it as well.

The miscalculation that Kim Il-sung made was he believed that all his troops needed to do was to conquer Seoul, which is of course near the DMZ. And then the oppressed masses would rise up against their oppressors. And that was a miscalculation. Even though the Americans had already left the peninsula in 1949, people in South Korea were not at all eager to live under Kim Il-sung's rule. Kim Il-sung disastrously kept his troops too long in Seoul instead of pushing them down to Busan, which is where I am speaking to you today.

I can look out my window here in my office and I can see the Nakdong River which is a very wide river that held up the North Korean advance and kept them from taking over the entire peninsula for just long enough for the Americans to conduct the famous Inchon landing in September of 1950, which of course changed the whole course of the war.

Annabelle Quince: This is Rear Vision on RN and via your ABC Radio app. I'm Annabelle Quince.

The Korean War ended in 1953 with an armistice that is still in place today.

Dwight Eisenhower [archival]: Tonight we greet with prayers of thanksgiving the official news that an armistice was signed almost an hour ago in Korea. And so at long last the carnage of war is to cease and the negotiations of a conference table is to begin.

Brian Myer: Now, that war was indeed lost from a North Korean perspective. They treat it like a victory today but it was an enormous blow I think to Kim Il-sung's prestige. He tried to deflect the blame by purging his foreign minister Pak Hon-yong who he claimed had given him bad advice. I think the North Korean regime has never got over losing the Korean War, and it remains committed to unifying the peninsula.

Annabelle Quince: So in that post-war period, how did he go about trying to reconstruct North Korea, and what were the economic policies he was looking at following?

Brian Myer: Well, that was kind of a controversial thing because Kim Il-sung insisted on pushing through collectivisation and industrialisation. In other words, Kim Il-sung insisted on pushing through the kind of Stalinist policies which by the end of the Korean War when Stalin was already dead were coming into disrepute in the Soviet Union. The collectivisation was particularly disastrous because it had the usual results; farmers began to hide their grain, to hoard their grain, and a famine resulted in 1954 to 1955. This is a fact which remains I think too little-known. A lot of people think North Korea was this wonderful economy until the late 1980s. Well, people were starving to death in the mid-1950s too.

Industrialisation was conducted along the Chinese model. The Chinese started their great leap forward in 1956, and the North Koreans started their so-called Chollima or flying horse movement in 1958. And it doesn't seem to have been entirely unsuccessful. So much Soviet and East German and Chinese aid poured into that country in the late 1950s and early 1960s that North Korea appears to have had a higher standard of living than South Korea, which was economically a basket case until Park Chung-hee took over there in 1961.

But by the late 1960s already it appears that South Korea was starting to move ahead of North Korea economically, and of course now there's just no comparison between the economies.

Journalist [archival]: Kim Il-sung is one of the most durable political leaders. He has run of the country since World War II and is now 78 years old. Although his son Kim Jong-il has been groomed to take over the leadership, James Cotton explains the younger Kim doesn't have his father's unquestioned strength and authority:

James Cotton [archival]: Well, this succession strategy has been engineered for some time now, starting in 1973. Gradually between 1973 and 1980 this became public knowledge. The problem is that he is a rather unpromising candidate. He is physically extremely unprepossessing. In addition to that he doesn't seem to have a great deal of talent.

Bradley Martin: Kim Jong-il was raised as a totally spoiled little monster basically, was the leader of a clique of ruling class princelings. He was not the only one, but he was the most ruthless of those people who were seeking power. Ruthless is good if you are trying to become a dictator in North Korea. This worked for him. His father saw that he was indeed a tough guy, and he also flattered his father because he was such a master of propaganda.

There was a famous stage show in honour of his father's birthday. Kim Jong-il really, really put himself out. He was running the country's arts and he made sure that they would have a fabulous, fabulous tribute to the father. And the father had tears in his eyes, and it was really about then that Kim Jong-il nailed it, and he was the one. It was clear that he had come out ahead of his rivals.

Journalist [archival]: Radio, television and newspaper do nothing but lavish praise on Kim Il-sung, and his son, the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il. Here in a Pyongyang school the children are literally singing the praises of the great leader and his son. If you listen carefully, you'll hear their names.

Brian Myer: He was a very different person in many ways. He was not as appealing to look at as Kim Il-sung whom most Koreans seem to have found a very good looking man in his youth. Kim Jong-il was shorter, unprepossessing appearance, not a particularly extroverted person. In fact the earliest footage of him at official functions showed him to be so disengaged from what was happening around him that many American observers assumed that he had to be retarded, but in fact he was a very intelligent person.

Virginie Grzelczyk: There's quite a lot of myth that is being propagated about him, the whole aspect of being a little bit of a party boy.

Annabelle Quince: Virginie Grzelczyk is a lecturer at Aston University in the UK, and her research focuses on North Korea.

Virginie Grzelczyk: Enjoying in a way the type of goods that for very practical reasons Kim Il-sung didn't have access to in the 1950s and 1960s. So there is a sense that yes, he was perhaps a bit more erratic than his father and quite a difficult temper. A lot of what is being talked about is this notion of craziness and this notion of partying. I'm not sure that is very relevant. I don't think it's particularly useful to understand actually what's going on in the country.

Journalist [archival]: After almost half a century as the Great Leader of North Korea, President Kim Il-sung has died.

Journalist [archival]: Radio Pyongyang said President Kim Il-sung had collapsed with a heart attack. The official broadcast said his son Kim Jong-il and heir apparent would be chairman of the funeral.

Brian Myer: And when he took over after his father's death in 1994 he began appearing as a very different kind of person. He assumed a kind of wistful, lonely persona, the man who had lost his mother at a very young age and had just lost his father and had to guide North Korea through the famine years, which in North Korea were presented as the arduous march.

Annabelle Quince: Kim Jong-il's rise to power coincided with two events. The first was the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

Virginie Grzelczyk: That was very damaging to North Korea. North Korea lost a lot of its economic support, it lost this direct line it had with the Soviet Union and with a lot of other Soviet satellites. It used to receive oil and other goods using a credit system and suddenly it had to pay for it. So the economic situation was not so great. At the same time South Korea had exploded on the international economic scene. China started to actually trade and recognise South Korea as well, which was very damaging for North Korea.

And then in 1994, which is an important year because Kim Il-sung dies, but at the same time North Korea was involved in those broad negotiations with the United States and with the rest of the world to apparently stop its nuclear production. Realistically speaking, and if we just look at the facts, he managed to weather the storm and stay in power through a number of controversial means, but also some policies that were to some extent quite crafty.

Annabelle Quince: The second event was a series of floods and droughts which exacerbated a nationwide famine and led to the death of more than a quarter of a million North Koreans.

Bradley Martin: It is true that all of the worst disasters came under his watch. When he started running things, while his father was still alive, that's when things started to go down the tube. The real reason is not that it was he that was doing it, not that he was particularly incompetent, it is that he was still using all of the old policies of his father. This was built in, that's why he had been chosen, so that they would not change policies, so that they would continue using all the Kim Il-sung policies. So in a way it was unfair. Kim Jong-il got blamed for the horrible things that happened, including the famine. But all of these arose out of his father's policies which he was simply maintaining.

Journalist [archival]: South Korean President Kim Dae-jung is in the United States and he told President Bill Clinton that he'd like to see a new US approach to communist North Korea.

Kim Dae-jung [archival]: [translation] We have nothing to fear from North Korea.

Annabelle Quince: In 1998 the South Korean President articulated the sunshine policy which led to greater political contact between South and North Korea.

Virginie Grzelczyk: We have a President in South Korea, Kim Dae-jung, who is going for engagement with North Korea. This is kind of the window of opportunity and let's have something, let's call it sunshine policy, to actually have a brighter future. So in '99, in 2000 actually those are extremely successful years, perhaps the best years really in the relationship, where we see Kim Jong-il and Kim Dae-jung meeting at the border and we see also families who had been separated being allowed to spend some time together. So there was really a lot of hope that things could be worked out.

Bradley Martin: Coming to terms with South Korea, you'll find a lot of disagreement on this. Some people who say yes, he realised that the North was never going to be able to conquer the South, so might as well come to terms with them and live with them. Or you could take my more suspicious view, you want to put the enemy at ease while you prepare to come in and chop his head off. I personally believe that North Korean core doctrine never wavered from the ultimate goal of conquest of South Korea.

Journalist [archival]: The death of Kim Jong-il has sent shock waves through Asia.

Journalist [archival]: North Korean state television announced that Kim Jong-il died of great mental and physical strain. Images broadcast on TV show North Koreans weeping in the streets after they heard the news. And his son Kim Jong-un is being heralded in state media as the great successor and an outstanding leader of the army and the people.

Brian Myer: Again, I think he needed to pick somebody from inside his family because so much of the legitimacy of the State still derived from the myth of Kim Il-sung.

Journalist [archival]: In the centre of Pyongyang stands a giant bronze statue. The statue is of the founder of the modern North Korean state, Kim Il-sung. Scores of people have gathered to worship the great leader. As an announcer reels off the great exploits of the great man, the people bow their heads, some even start to cry.

Brian Myer: When you take Kim Il-sung out of the propaganda mythical landscape, there's really nothing left over. Kim Jong-il did a good job, sure, but the only reason that his takeover had been considered legitimate was because he had been hand-picked by his father. And I think had Kim Jong-il chosen somebody from outside the family to succeed him, there would have been factional struggle. As for why he picked Kim Jong-un instead of other people, there's a lot of speculation about it. Of course Kim Jong-nam his oldest son had gotten in the news for trying to enter Japan on a fake passport because he wanted to go to Tokyo Disneyland. So he was out then.

The son Kim Jong-chul is alleged to have, as ludicrous as it sounds, hormonal reasons why he couldn't have taken over. There is talk of him having…it's almost too ridiculous to talk about, but having female breasts and so on. Something is funny there with that kid apparently. And Kim Jong-il settled on Kim Jong-un, and that decision seems to have been made very early because we have these photographs of Kim Jong-un as a very small child in a general's uniform. So it looks to me like Kim Jong-il made that decision when Kim Jong-un was still at a very young age.

Annabelle Quince: Unlike his father and his grandfather, Kim Jong-un was educated in Switzerland. So was he influenced by western ideas?

Bradley Martin: He was not really trained in Switzerland. He went there as a schoolboy. So what was he picking up? He was picking up pop music and basketball. We have no indication that he is an educated man in any sense of the word. His training as to how to behave as a leader came mainly in North Korea. I don't think he's a secret liberal by any means. He is very much the young prince.

Brian Myer: This is not a dictator ruling on the basis of coercion alone. Let's remember, coercion is a very expensive business. Technologically it's very challenging, and North Korea is simply not in the position to rule its people that way. It has to rule them through inspiration. And when people tell me it's like 1984 up there, I always remind them that Kim Jong-un knows much less about his citizens than President Obama knows about every single American, including me. So if he wants to hold onto power, he has to inspire his people.

Now, ironically and unfortunately that's what makes North Korea such a dangerous company. If this were East Germany, if this were a regime which could rule its citizens by putting them under a complete 24/7 lockdown and building a huge wall along the northern border, things would be much easier for the rest of us. It would be a much easier country to negotiate with, it would be able to disarm and still hold onto power. But it's not that kind of a state. It's a far right state which has to keep going down the road to unification.

Journalist [archival]: North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un has used an important national holiday to let the world know his country is making inroads on its nuclear ambitions.

Kim Jong-un [archival]: [translation] Our scientists and technicians of the Nuclear Weapons Institute carried out a nuclear explosion test at the northern nuclear test ground.

Bradley Martin: We've got the third generation in power. That's an indication of how long they are able to keep this thing spinning. But as I say, I would not like to come back to the palace each night all by myself and be thinking about what's in the future. Suppose you use some of those atomic weapons? North Korea would be obliterated, including you yourself the leader. What can he be thinking? I don't think he's relaxed. It doesn't look like a very pleasant job to me long term.

Annabelle Quince: Bradley Martin, author of Under the Loving Care Of the Fatherly Leader. My other guests were Brian Myer, an analyst in North Korean culture, and Virginie Grzelczyk.

The sound engineer is Jennifer Parsonage. I'm Annabelle Quince and this is Rear Vision on RN.